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Seattle’s Crosswalk ‘Chirps’ Being Killed Off By ‘Rapid Ticks’

KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott
The small speakers at certain intersections in Seattle emit a tone to signal when it is safe to cross for the blind or visually impaired.

Of the nearly 1,050 traffic signals in Seattle, about 100 have audible traffic signals. Pedestrians who have gotten used to the chirps and cuckoo sounds are contending with a new tone. So far, multiple people have described the new “rapid ticks” as jarring, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation.

“I think some of it is just in the sampling of the noise: It cuts off pretty quickly, and that’s what makes it sound more like a gun than anything,” said Ahmed Darrat, traffic signal shop manager for SDOT.

The NEW Seattle Crosswalk Sound: Rapid Tick by KUOW

So why is Seattle phasing out the sound of birds with something that sounds like the clip from an action movie? In a nutshell: because the federal government said so, according to Darrat.

Darrat and SDOT are trying to comply with standards outlined in Federal Highway Administration's “Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices,"or MUTCD.

According to the manual, “Research indicates that a rapid-tick tone for each crossing coming from accessible pedestrian signal devices on separated poles located close to each crosswalk provides unambiguous information to pedestrians who are blind or visually impaired.”

The Seattle Crosswalk 'Chirp' by KUOWTheSeattle Crosswalk "Cuckoo" by KUOW

The chirp or cuckoo sounds were considered ambiguous – they could be confused for real birds, which could make it difficult to determine if it is safe to cross the road. So those sounds are on their way out. “You’ll be hearing some form of rapid tick no matter what because that’s what the MUTCD says,” Darrat said.

Though the city could have chosen from a few different options, it went with the standard tone to better match the traffic sounds in other cities, like San Francisco or Los Angeles.

As the chirps fade, there will be another addition to the sonic landscape of Seattle: an automated voice at intersections with text-to-speech software that will not only indicate when it is safe to walk but also what the cross street is.

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.